Excerpt from Last Hope Island
“MAJESTY, WE ARE AT WAR!”
On a chilly April night in 1940, leading officials of the Norwegian government were invited to the German legation in Oslo for the screening of a new film. The engraved invitations, sent by German minister Carl Brauer, directed the guests to wear “full dress and orders,” which indicated a gala formal occasion. But for the white-tie, bemedaled audience seated in the legation’s drawing room, the evening turned out to be anything but festive.
Horrific images filled the screen from the film’s beginning: dead horses, machine-gunned civilians, a city consumed in flames. Entitled Baptism of Fire, the movie was a documentary depicting the German conquest of Poland in September 1939; it portrayed in especially graphic detail the devastation caused by the bombing of Warsaw. This, Brauer said after the screening, was what other countries could expect if they dared resist German attempts “to defend them from England.” Appalled by the harrowing footage, Brauer’s guests were puzzled as to why the German diplomat thought it necessary to show the movie to them. What could any of this have to do with peaceful, neutral Norway?
Four nights later, just after midnight, those same officials were awakened by urgent phone calls informing them that several ships of unknown origin had entered the fjord leading to Oslo. A sea fog blanketing the fjord made it impossible to identify the ghostly armada’s markings. Within minutes, however, the mystery of their nationality was solved when reports of surprise German attacks on every major port in Norway and Denmark began flooding Norwegian government offices.
Aboard the German heavy cruiser Blücher, Gen. Erwin Engelbrecht, who commanded the attack force heading for Oslo, reviewed his orders with his subordinates. In just a few hours, more than a thousand troops, equipped with minutely detailed maps and photographs of the Norwegian capital, were to disembark from the Blücher in Oslo’s harbor. Their assignment was to slip into the sleeping city and storm government buildings, the state radio station, and the royal palace. Before noon, King Haakon, Crown Prince Olav, and the rest of the royal family would be under arrest and the Norwegian government under German control. A military band, also on board the Blücher would play “Deutschland Uber Alles” in the city’s center to celebrate Germany’s triumph, while Engelbrecht’s bureaucrats took over administration of the country and its two most important material assets — its merchant marine and its gold.
When a Norwegian patrol boat spotted the flotilla and had the temerity to issue a challenge, the boat was machine-gunned and sunk. Further up the fjord, two small island forts, alerted by the patrol boat, also fired on the ships, but the heavy fog made accurate sighting impossible and the vessels swept on untouched. Shortly before 4 a.m., the convoy approached Oscarborg Fortress, an island stronghold built in the mid-nineteenth century and Oslo’s last major line of defense. The Blücher captain was as unperturbed by the sight of the fortress as he had been by the pesky patrol boat. On his charts and maps, Oscarborg was identified as a museum and its two antiquated cannons described as obsolete.
The maps and charts were wrong on both counts. The fortress was operational, and so were the old cannons, fondly called “Moses” and “Aaron” by their crews. The fog lifted a bit, and as the darkened silhouettes of the ships came into view, a searchlight on the mainland suddenly illuminated the Blücher. Moses and Aaron erupted at point-blank range, their shells crashing into the 12,000-ton heavy cruiser. One shell smashed into the Blucher’s bridge, destroying its gunnery and navigational controls, while another slammed into a storeroom filled with aviation fuel. Shore batteries also began firing. Within seconds, the Blücher was ablaze, the flames leaping high in the air, burning off the fog and lighting up the snow-covered banks of the fjord.
With a great roar, the ship’s torpedo magazine exploded, and less than an hour later, the Blücher, commissioned only seven months before, rolled over on its side and sank. Nearly one thousand men went down with her, including most of the elite troops assigned to capture the royal family and government officials. Gen. Engelbrecht was one of the several hundred survivors who escaped the burning oil covering the fjord’s surface and swam frantically to shore.
Throughout that day –April 9, 1940 — Hitler’s audacious, meticulously planned invasion of Denmark and Norway had gone almost exactly as planned. By early afternoon, virtually all the Fuhrer’s major objectives along 1,500 miles of Norwegian coastline had been taken. All, that is, except Oslo, the political, economic, and communications center of Norway and the key to the operation’s eventual success.
At 1:30 a.m. on April 9, the man atop Germany’s most wanted list in Norway was awakened by his aide-de-camp. “Majesty,” the aide said urgently, “we are at war!” The news came as no surprise to King Haakon VII. He had been expecting–and dreading — it for years. In 1932, he had told the British admiral Sir John Kelly: “If Hitler comes to power in Germany and manages to hold on to it, then we shall have a war in Europe before another decade is over.”
Hitler had come to power, but Norway’s political leaders ignored the king’s repeated urging to strengthen the country’s shockingly weak defenses. Like other Scandinavian nations, Norway had long since abandoned its bellicose Viking heritage: peace, not war, was deeply rooted in its psyche. Norwegians had little admiration for military heroes, of whom their country, in any case, had few. Much more esteemed were the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, chosen annually by the Norwegian parliament. “It was very difficult to be a military man in prewar Norway,” noted one of the few army officers on active duty in April 1940.
Norway’s military vulnerability, however, was of little concern to its government leaders. The country had been at peace for well over a century, had successfully maintained its neutrality during World War I, and intended to remain neutral in the future. Money should be spent on social reforms, Norway’s leaders believed, not on building up the military. In the view of most Norwegians, “war was the kind of thing that happened in other parts of the world,” noted Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian novelist who won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature. “How many of us had ever seriously believed it could happen in Norway?”
Having made a close study of Hitler, which included reading Mein Kampf in the early 1930s, the 67-year-old Haakon was far less sanguine. If war broke out, his peaceable northern kingdom, while militarily defenseless, would have great strategic importance. Facing Britain to the west, it provided a gateway to the North Atlantic. To the south, it had access to the Baltic Sea and German coast. Not least, it controlled the northwest sea route through which iron ore from Sweden was shipped to Germany, the ore’s main customer. And then there was Norway’s far-flung merchant marine fleet, a glittering prize for Hitler or any other belligerent.
But whenever Haakon raised these and other points, government leaders disregarded them — and him. Most Norwegian officials scorned the monarchy as “a useless relic of a bygone age” and believed it should have no influence in government matters. Many thought there should be no monarchy at all. As much as he loved Norway, Haakon sometimes felt unwelcome there, at least in government circles. Not infrequently, he felt like the foreigner he once had been.
Until he became king of Norway, Haakon VII, the second son of the crown prince of Denmark, had barely set foot in the country. He did not learn to speak Norwegian until the age of 33, shortly before his reign began. Known as Prince Carl in Denmark, he had been a modest, unassuming young royal who grew up believing he would never be king of anything, for which he was profoundly grateful. His mother reportedly had pressured him to marry the young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, but he resisted, wanting nothing to do with the pomp and formality of official court life. Instead, he wooed and won his first cousin Maud, the sports-mad daughter of King Edward VII of England, who was as anxious for a quiet life, out of the limelight, as he was. At the time of his marriage, Carl, who sported the tattoo of an anchor on his arm, was an officer in the Danish navy and planned to make it his career.
But in 1905, Norway’s declaration of independence from Sweden turned the life of the sailor prince upside down. The century-old union between the two countries was never an equal one: Sweden, whose kings ruled both nations, had been the dominant partner from the beginning, and Norway grew increasingly restive. To lessen the chance of forceful Swedish opposition to their peaceful rebellion, Norwegian leaders said they would welcome a junior member of Sweden’s royal family as the country’s new monarch. Prince Carl, whose maternal grandfather was the king of Sweden and Norway, was the obvious choice.
The prince, however, was appalled at the idea. Not only did he want to remain in the Danish navy, he knew virtually nothing about Norway and its people. He also was acutely aware that many citizens of Norway, which had abolished its aristocracy in the 19th century, were in favor of a republic, not a monarchy. Under heavy pressure from his father-in-law, Edward VII, among others, he finally agreed — but only if Norway held a referendum on the issue. When 88 percent of the electorate voted for a monarchy, Carl was crowned, taking the ancient Norwegian royal name of Haakon. (His wife, English to the core, refused to renounce her given name: she was known as Queen Maud until the day she died in 1938. She continued, as she always had done, to address her husband as Charles, the Anglified version of Carl. “I actually have plans to make him completely English,” she confided in her diary early in their courtship.)
With Haakon as monarch, Norway boasted the most egalitarian kingdom in the world. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, an aide to Queen Maud’s father, once said that Norway was “so socialistic that a King and Queen seemed out of place.” Haakon, who frequently described his position as that of “a very democratic president for life,” was known to his people as “Herre Konge” (“Mr. King”) rather than “Your Majesty.” The royal family lived simply, with Queen Maud often doing her own shopping. In his frequent tours of the country and travels abroad, Haakon impressed those he met with his friendliness and wry sense of humor. Once, at a gathering of the British royal family at Windsor, he noticed a youthful distant cousin of his, Lord Frederick Cambridge, standing awkwardly by himself in a corner. He marched over and vigorously shook the young peer’s hand. “You don’t know me,” he said. “Let me introduce myself. I’m old Norway.”
As close as he was to his British relatives and as much as he loved their country, Haakon was horrified by the refusal of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government to confront Hitler over his repeated aggressions in the 1930s. After World War II began in September 1939, Norway, like other neutral European countries, made clear it wanted no part of a military alliance with a nation that, along with France, had handed over much of Czechoslovakia to the Fuhrer and then, having declared war against Germany for invading Poland, failed to do anything to aid the Poles. “All the small nations now understand that we in the future have to look after ourselves,” Haakon wrote chidingly to his nephew, Britain’s King George VI.
Until the spring of 1940, the war was a conflict in name only. Chamberlain and most officials in his government had no interest in and no intention of fighting a real war. They had imposed an economic blockade against Hitler and seemed to think that would be enough to bring him to his knees.
Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s first lord of the admiralty and the British Cabinet’s only bellicose member, strongly disagreed with Chamberlain’s “phony war” strategy. From the war’s first day, he demanded that Britain take the offensive against Germany — but not on German soil. The confrontation, he said, should come in the waters of Norway. He repeatedly urged the British government to stop the shipment of Swedish iron ore, vital to Germany’s armament industry, along Norway’s coastline. After hesitating for months, Chamberlain finally gave in to Churchill’s pressure. At dawn on April 8, 1940, British ships began sowing mines along the Norwegian coast. Hitler, who weeks earlier had said he would forestall any British move on Norway, had already ordered his high command to implement carefully prepared plans for a surprise attack and occupation of both Norway and Denmark.
In most respects, Germany’s land, sea, and air assault on the two Scandinavian countries was a brilliant success. Before it began, Hitler had decreed that the kings of Norway and Denmark must be prevented from escaping “at all costs.” In Copenhagen, the Germans had no trouble finding King Christian of Denmark, Haakon’s 70-year-old brother, who capitulated as ordered. But bad weather and the sinking of the Blücher had upset the split-second timing of the assault on Oslo. When German troops finally entered the royal palace, government buildings, and Bank of Norway that afternoon, they found only frightened low-level government employees and piles of papers burning in furnaces and fireplaces. The bank vaults lay empty, with no trace of the country’s gold bullion. The king and government leaders had vanished, too.